Over the last few years, the New York Yankees have placed a focus on getting younger. The attempts to make that happen have been mostly successful. The data back it up. Consider: since 2014, the average age of the club’s batters (weighted by plate appearance) has decreased from 32.5 to 31.2 to 30.0.
At first glance, the Yankees’ decision on Sunday to sign Matt Holliday to a one-year, $13 million contract might seem to run contrary to these efforts. Adding a 37-year-old to play designated hitter doesn’t immediately seem like the sort of move that would continue to facilitate the Yankees’ youth movement. That said, this is the same club that allocated a majority of the team’s plate appearances at DH last season to 40-year-old Alex Rodriguez and 39-year-old Carlos Beltran. In a crowded market for designated-hitter types, the Yankees acted relatively early and might have gotten one of the better deals for the upcoming season.
In the past few months, New York has jettisoned Beltran, Rodriguez, Brian McCann, and Mark Teixeira. In the process, they created a void both at first base and DH. It seems likely the team will turn to Greg Bird to fill the former position. Bird had a very impressive 2015 season that included some time in the majors, but missed all of 2016 after labrum surgery. The team also has Tyler Austin. In either case, however, it’s probably fair to say that the club features a question mark at first base and nobody of consequence at DH. The market is full of the latter, as the chart below illustrates.
|2017 Age||2016 PA||2016 wRC+||2017 Projected wRC+|
Holliday compares less than favorably to his peers in some ways. By age, playing time, and 2016 performance, he’s inferior to most of them. When it comes to projections for next season, however, Holliday is near the top of the list, behind only Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, each of whom will sign for significantly more than $13 million. Holliday’s projection is also more favorable than Carlos Beltran’s or Kendrys Morales’s, both of whom have already signed for more money than Holliday. In addition, Holliday arrives without the burden of a qualifying offer like Bautista, Encarnacion and Trumbo, meaning the Yankees won’t have to give up a draft pick for his services.
One is excused for wondering about Holliday’s projection, though. The forecast has Holliday, at age 37, hitting significantly better than he did at age 36 — which season marked the third consecutive one during which Holliday’s wRC+ declined. After having been a model of consistency for a decade, Holliday has declined noticeably in recent seasons, as the graph below shows.
At first glance, it doesn’t appear as though a 122 wRC+ projection for Holliday makes a whole lot of sense given what we know about decline and aging. To make matters worse, Holliday has failed to stay healthy the last two seasons. In 2015, he missed more than half the season with separate hamstring strains; in 2016, he missed a bunch of time after getting hit on the wrist by a pitch. Those are the negatives, and that’s why the Cardinals didn’t pay $16 million to pick up his option. That’s also why Beltran and Morales have already received more money this offseason than Holliday.
That graph doesn’t completely represent Holliday’s performance, however. Holliday’s walk rate did decline a bit in 2016, to 8.2%, but his power was the best it had been in several years, resulting in a .215 ISO. His strikeout rate (16.7%) remained better than league average, and the list of players who recorded both (a) a higher walk rate, (b) higher ISO and (c) lower strikeout rate (min. 400 PA) is a short one: Nolan Arenado, David Ortiz, Anthony Rizzo, Carlos Santana, and Kyle Seager. All of the players on that list hit considerably better than Matt Holliday last season because Holliday had a very low .253 BABIP.
To that last point: there are a lot of reasons why a player might record a low BABIP. For example, he might be a slow runner who hits a lot of ground balls. Or who hits a ton of fly balls. Maybe a hitter could be negatively affected by an infield shift. Or perhaps he’s lost some ability and just can’t seem to hit the ball hard.
None of these factors seem to have affected Holliday, though. He isn’t fast, but he isn’t particularly prone to hitting grounders or fly balls. His infield-fly-ball rate isn’t that high. He hits the ball to all fields and shifts haven’t been heavy against him. His Hard% last year was above his career average.
Holliday also hasn’t typically posted low BABIPs during his career, recording a .333 figure since entering the big leagues. He produced at .298 mark in 2014 and .335 in 2015. That .253 mark from last season is the anomaly. Holliday’s line-drive percentage was very low last season, but line-drive percentage doesn’t generally correlate year to year. In addition, the Statcast data we have indicates that Holliday was still hitting the ball well in 2016.
Of the 265 hitters who recorded at least 180 batted balls last year, Holliday’s average exit velocity of 94.7 mph was behind only Nelson Cruz‘s and Giancarlo Stanton‘s. It’s not like Holliday was hitting the ball hard into the ground, either. His barrels (batted balls for which the expected batting average is over .500 and slugging is over 1.500 based on exit velocity and launch angle) per plate appearance and barrels per batted ball both placed in the top quarter of hitters last season. Five of Holliday’s 25 barrels were turned into outs by the opposing defense. Of Holliday’s 266 batted balls last season, 92 had an expected batting average above .500.
Of the players who recorded at least 50 batted balls with an expected batting average of .500 or greater, the average batting average was .760. Holliday’s batting average on his 92 batted balls was .674. While it might not seem like a big difference, that’s eight extra hits typically recorded by the average player from which Holliday didn’t benefit last season. Even giving Holliday those hits as singles, his BABIP would be closer to normal at .281, and his wRC+ would cross over the 120 threshold. Holliday is 37 and on the decline, but last season’s 109 wRC+ deflates what his line would have been with average luck.
There’s a reason Holliday made Dave Cameron’s list of free-agent bargains. Relative to Holliday’s potential production, a one-year contract at $13 million is a very modest investment. Holliday likely profiles as a designated hitter for the Yankees, but he isn’t totally limited to the position. He’s a below-average left fielder, but he isn’t unplayable, and he also has some experience at first base. Getting wins on the free-agent market isn’t cheap or easy, but in Matt Holliday, the Yankees might have gotten a couple extra wins at a small cost.